California Court of Appeals Rules in Case Alleging Premature Declaration of Death

In a very difficult to discuss fact scenario, Arroyo v. Plosay, 225 Cal. App. 4th 279 (2014), the California Court of Appeals, 2nd Dist., reached a decision regarding the disposition of a case that alleged wrongful death and medical malpractice in the treatment of a woman whom plaintiffs suspected had been wrongfully declared dead, and then somehow suffered injuries to her face.

The relevant complaint for the appeal claimed that the decedent was taken to the hospital (defendant), where she received treatment for cardiac arrest, acute myocardial infarction, and hypertension. Shortly thereafter, the decedent was pronounced dead by hospital employees. The family was then brought in to say their goodbyes before her body was taken to the morgue. When workers for the mortuary that the family had selected by came to pick up the body, they found the decedent lying facedown with a broken nose and facial lacerations and contusions. The injuries had not been present when she had been transported to the hospital, nor when the family saw the decedent after she had been declared dead. The mortuary informed the family of the injuries in the course of preparing the body for the funeral.

The plaintiffs initially filed negligence actions, which were dismissed by the trial court, and in part by the plaintiffs themselves when the court refused their attempt to amend the complaint. They then filed this subsequent lawsuit, alleging a medical malpractice cause of action.

The first lawsuit had alleged that the hospital was negligent in the handling of the decedent’s body, and that their actions had led to the disfigurement. However, the plaintiffs then consulted with an expert witness, who informed them of his opinion that the decedent had been prematurely declared dead and was “frozen alive” in the hospital’s morgue, eventually causing her to wake up, due to the extreme cold, which caused her to “damage[] her face and turn[] herself face down as she struggled unsuccessfully to escape her frozen tomb.” That expert witness testimony was the basis for the subsequent lawsuit alleging medical malpractice.

The trial court granted the defendant’s demurrer for the second lawsuit, on the basis that the statute of limitations period applicable in medical malpractice cases, one year, had already passed since the patient had died. However, the family did not have reason to know that the decedent may have been alive and suffered the injuries in an attempt to escape until later. Thus, the court of appeals found that taking the allegations of the complaint as true, it cannot be said as a matter of law that the one-year period began on the date of the decedent’s death.

The hospital’s argument that the plaintiffs were on notice from the date of the death was not accurate, since the injury that the plaintiffs reasonably suspected had occurred on the day the decedent died was entirely different from those underlying the medical negligence and wrongful death claims.

Based on the facts in the complaint, read as a whole, the plaintiffs had absolutely no reason to suspect that the decedent was alive rather than dead when placed in the hospital morgue and when the disfiguring injuries occurred, and thus they had no reason to suspect or investigate potential wrongdoing by the defendants  in prematurely declaring the decedent dead. Therefore, the trial court’s decision in granting the hospital’s demurrer was reversed and remanded.

Regarding the plaintiff’s third action, which pleaded the alternative, that the decedent was dead and the disfigurement was caused by the mishandling of her body, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision and the plaintiff’s agreement to dismiss that claim, on the basis that the statute of limitations had tolled on that cause of action.

Sharifi Firm, APC is an experienced personal injury law firm with offices throughout the state of California.  We have skillfully represented California wrongful death claimants for years, and we have earned a reputation for earning our clients the maximum in damages.  Call us today at 1-866-422-7222 for a free consultation with a wrongful death lawyer in California.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Sides with City of San Jose Employee in Workers’ Compensation Case, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, published March 10, 2015

California Court of Appeals Issues Ruling in Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death Case, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, published March 6, 2015

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